The Tragedy at Astroworld Happened Because Travis Scott is Bad at His Job

The rapper has a professional responsibility to ensure his fans' safety and security at his events—but he's been abdicating it for years.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Nov 12 2021

13 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

Content warning: this newsletter contains references to violence and death and details of the fatal crowd surge at Astroworld on Nov. 5, 2021.

I can’t stop thinking about the disaster at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival in Houston, where, as of yesterday, nine people—Mirza Baig, 27, Rodolfo Peña, 23, Madison Dubiski, 23, Bharti Shahani, 22, Franco Patiño, 21, Jacob Jurinke, 20, Axel Acosta Avila, 21, Brianna Rodriguez, 16, and John Hilgert, 14—lost their lives, and hundreds of others were injured after the crowd rushed the stage during Scott’s performance, trapping and crushing attendees.  

Actually, I can’t stop thinking about Scott’s fans. I often write about fandom from the fan perspective—what inspires their admiration/fascination, how these parasocial relationships work, how that might change the way someone relates to pop culture—but this week, I’ve been thinking about it from the other side. Scott’s side. Because this wasn’t just a random tragedy; it was an entirely predictable outcome based on several factors, not least of which is how Scott relates to his fans and what he asks them to do.

The thing I keep wondering is, what value do his fans hold for Travis Scott? And what does he owe them in return?

What happened at Astroworld?

If you’ve been anywhere near the news this week, you probably already know the broad strokes of this tragedy, but here’s a quick primer: Astroworld was first held in 2018 at NRG Park in Houston, located not far from the former site of Six Flags AstroWorld. Scott was a huge fan of the amusement park, which closed in 2005. It inspired his 2018 album of the same name, and the festival has always been intended to honour the place. As Texas Monthly explained after the first Astroworld festival, “it had an amusement park theme filtered through Scott’s own specific aesthetic, a combination of Marilyn Manson and Willy Wonka, a carousel and swings alongside jugglers and dancers in full mirror suits. There was a deliberate creepiness to it, a dark twist that made otherwise childish rides appropriate for Scott’s audience of predominantly young adults.”

The festival has grown substantially since 2018, when 35,000 people attended. In 2019, it became a two-day event with 50,000 attendees, a formula that Scott repeated this year. (Back in May, several outlets reported that 100,000 tickets sold out in less than an hour, but the Associated Press reported that city officials had capped capacity at 50,000.)

About 30 minutes before Scott took the stage on Friday evening, a timer began counting down to his performance and the crowd started rushing the stage. According to Instagram user @seannafaith, whose story was the first I read, “every gap was filled, where your feet were placed was where they stayed. Within the first 30 seconds of the first song, people began to drown—in other people. The rush of people became tighter and tighter. Breathing became something only a few were capable of. The rest were crushed or unable to breathe in the thick, hot air… our lungs were compressed between the bodies of those surrounding us.”

Other reports were equally scary. TK Tellez told CNN that people began passing out and falling from lack of air. Then, at one point, he fell, too. People began piling up on top of him, some of them unconscious. "Everybody was crying; it was the scariest sound I've ever heard," he says. Though he was eventually able to get up and out of the crowd, he—and many other attendees—are traumatized by the experience. "This year's festival will be stuck with me forever. I've never seen someone die in front of my eyes. It was horrific.”

While this was going on, attendees were trying to help one another out, but at least one concertgoer says those in the VIP section were more concerned with plebes encroaching on their territory than the fact that people were dying.

And despite how dangerous it had become in the crowd, it took a long time for the show to actually stop. According to Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA, around 9:30pm, “the music stopped as an ambulance made its way through the crowd after the first reports of people getting hurt in the crowd. Video footage showed Scott stopping his concert and asking, ‘What is that?’ as the ambulance entered the crowd.” But he quickly started performing again. At 9:38pm, Houston police declared a mass casualty event and asked concert promoters to stop the show, but it didn’t officially end until 10:10pm, 32 minutes later. Scott says he didn’t know how bad things were, but it’s clear that he knew something was going on—between the declaration of the mass casualty event and the end of the show, Apple Music’s livestream of the concert shows him pausing to draw attention to someone who needed help, saying, "somebody passed out right here.”

It’s not surprising this happened. It’s more surprising that tragedies like this don’t happen more often, tbh

Despite the ridiculous (and thankfully short-lived) satanism conspiracy theories, the causes of this tragedy were entirely mundane. Risk management expert Brian Higgins wrote an opinion piece for USA Today this week breaking down the principles of crowd management and what may have gone wrong at the festival. Two things immediately stood out, he said: “Several sources indicate the crowd was littered with rambunctious and even violent elements. When crowd management is performed correctly, the staff recognizes the characteristics and tempo of the crowd and responds in accordance with a predetermined plan.” (According to the Guardian, there was an operations plan for the festival, but it did not include protocols for a crowd surge.) Also, “images of the performance appear to show the crowd surrounded on three sides by rigid barriers. This might have contributed to the injuries. In any open-air venue, best practices, including those of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, advise to not restrict egress.”

What's more, according to attendee (and ICU nurse) Madeline Eskins, there weren't enough medics on duty, those who were there didn't seem to be adequately trained and it was almost impossible for anyone to get through the crowds to people in distress. All of which is probably why they needed her to help perform CPR and check people's pulses, though she had only recently come to after passing out herself.

Later in his op-ed, Higgins pointed out that while the industry standard is to have one crowd manager for every 250 people, there are no rules about what kind of training those managers must undergo, and that for some organizations, it only consists of a 15- to 30-minute online course. That, and other cut corners when it comes to safety standards, are designed to protect promoters’, venues’ and artists’ bottom lines, he says.

Music writer Israel Daramola made a similar point on Twitter, arguing that the entire music festival system is actually designed to produce events for the cheapest possible cost in order to maximize profit, with little to no regard for the safety of the people who actually attend these events.  

And there is a lot of profit to be had, btw. Let’s pause for a math break. Two-day passes for Astroworld ’21 started at $300 for general admission—before fees, which added another $65 to the cost—and VIP passes, which came in two levels, were even pricier. “Stargazing” VIP passes went for $730 plus fees, while “No Bystander” passes were $1,000 plus fees. That’s a huge jump in cost; the last time Scott staged Astroworld in 2019, GA passes started at $89 (though it seems like at least some people paid $179) and VIP packages ranged from $250 to $550. It’s hard to tell exactly how much revenue the festival brings in because we don’t know how many of each type of tickets sold, plus there are also concessions, merch sales and sponsors to account for. But let’s just pretend that all 50,000 attendees in 2019 and 2021 were GA. That would mean the minimum gross was $4 million in 2019 and $15 million in 2021.

Producing a festival is expensive, but that’s still more than enough money to put on a safe show. (Not that money really matters; if you don't have the budget for adequate safety protocols, then you can't afford to produce a concert. They are as fundamental as the stage.) Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that Astroworld wasn't a safe show. According to the Houston Chronicle, “Live Nation Entertainment and its subsidiary Live Nation Worldwide have been linked to at least 750 injuries and around 200 deaths at its events in seven countries since 2006, according to a review of court records, Occupational Safety and Health complaints and news reports.” This includes incidents at concerts by Radiohead, Madonna, Beyoncé, Dua Lipa, Drake and Jimmy Buffett, some shockingly similar to what happened at Astroworld, including concertgoers trampling others and breaking barricades.

I know Travis Scott says he cares about his fans, but…

And then there’s Scott himself, who famously encourages “raging” at his shows—though he doesn't institute age limits and in fact directly markets himself to children. In 2015, during his set at Lollapalooza, he urged the crowd to jump the barricades. (He was charged with disorderly conduct and later pled guilty.) In 2017, he encouraged a fan to jump from a second-floor balcony during a show in New York City. It’s unclear if that person suffered any injuries, but then 23-year-old Kyle Green says he was pushed from a third-floor balcony at the same show and ended up partially paralyzed. The same year, Scott was again arrested, this time for allegedly inciting a riot at an Arkansas show. (He eventually pled guilty to disorderly conduct.) And as many news outlets have pointed out, three people were injured at 2019’s Astroworld Festival when the crowd rushed to enter the venue. He later posted footage of the moment the barriers broke as a thank you message to fans.

And on Friday, just after an ambulance wound through the crowd to get to a fan who suffered cardiac arrest, “two men who appeared to be part of Mr. Scott’s entourage approached him onstage,” according to the New York Times. “Mr. Scott shooed them away. ‘Y’all know what you came to do,’ he said, turning to the crowd, before the music started up again. Mr. Scott asked the tens of thousands in front of him to make ‘the ground shake.’”

To be fair, it's likely that Scott didn’t understand just how serious things had gotten in the crowd. And it’s true that lots of artists hype up fans at their shows. But I think it would be disingenuous to pretend that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Of course he understands the consequences of writing song lyrics like “it ain't no mosh pit if ain't no injuries, I got 'em stage divin' out the nosebleeds," or telling people to break the explicit rules of concert venues and unspoken mosh etiquette. As has happened many times before, he'll face criminal charges and real people will get seriously injured... and it will build his brand. His goal is to make people feel like they’re part of something so they will spend their money on his merch, his concerts, his albums, the products he’s paid to promote, his girlfriend’s lip kits. But he doesn’t demonstrate a corresponding sense of obligation. In fact, it seems like his care for his fans only extends as far as his bank account. (Case in point: it looks like his label, Grand Hustle, is claiming copyright infringement against at least one vlogger who posted about the Astroworld tragedy using footage from the show.)

Here's the thing, though: Travis Scott might have a cool job, but it is a job, and it comes with certain professional obligations. I’m not talking about access to his private life, being a good role model, or even releasing new art; I'm talking about safety and security. In the same way that traditional businesses have to make sure their sidewalks aren’t icy in the winter and their offices aren’t fire hazards, artists have a moral, ethical and legal responsibility to make sure their concerts and events are safe for attendees. That's why his brief pauses during the show aren't vindicating; they're damning.

According to University of Suffolk professor Keith Still, who spoke to NPR about crowd surges, "even a slight movement gets amplified throughout the crowd because as the mass of one body pushes against another, it gathers momentum. So a very, very small movement in a high-density environment can create what's called shockwaves. So initially, you'll see crowds sway, and at that point, you should be trying to unwind the crowd density. But once you get the crowd surge, you can then result in what's called a progressive crowd collapse. So the crowd actually falls on top of each other. And at that point, as people struggle to get up. Arms and legs get twisted together. Blood supply starts to be reduced to the brain. It takes 30 seconds before you lose consciousness, and around about six minutes, you're into compressive or restrictive asphyxia." But, Still says, there's one pretty solid way to reassert control over a crowd: "the performer can stop."

Big picture, this conversation isn’t about satanism or hip hop or even rowdy crowds (who didn't lack humanity, btw—they were literally dying). It’s about professional responsibility—and Travis Scott is doing a shit job.

And Did You Hear About…

This very specific experience that anyone who used Napster in high school will definitely recognize.

Vox’s explainer on why all the cool new movies were shot in black and white.

Kathleen Newman-Bremang’s super smart take on why we need to let go of #RelationshipGoals.

The couple pranks that have been taking off on TikTok recently.

This impressive investigation into the “post a pet, plant a tree” scam that took over IG this week.

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